A central feature of the rule of law is its relationship with justice and equality.
The rule of law is inextricably linked to the protection of fundamental human rights. All citizens must have adequate access to justice and the law, as this access ensures the protection and upholding of their rights—such as those enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights—while also functioning as a means to challenge discrimination or hold decision-makers accountable. However, the rule of law is rendered meaningless if citizens are not able to access justice.
Upholding the Rule of Law: Joint steps taken by the Malaysian Judiciary and UNDP
Recognising that the rule of law is integral to a democratic society, the Malaysian Judiciary and UNDP Malaysia partnered on several programs in furtherance of this objective in 2019 and 2020:
- The launch of the International Framework on Court Excellence (IFCE) Report (2019);
- the Judicial Colloquium on Access to Justice (2020); and
- the Borneo Colloquium on Environmental Justice (2020).
The integrity and independence of the judiciary are sacrosanct. It is a necessary precondition for upholding the rule of law and in instilling public confidence in its institution. Quoting Tun Arifin Zakaria, the former Chief Justice of Malaysia, “It is our duty to ensure unhindered access to justice for all citizens, and to enforce the laws of the land equitably and transparently. Inherent in these functions is our paramount duty to be independent, impartial and incorruptible.”
In this manner, the Malaysian Judiciary and UNDP Malaysia partnered to produce the IFCE Report - a framework for identifying entry points for judicial reform.
Launched in March 2019, the IFCE Report was described by the then Chief Justice of Malaysia, Tan Sri Richard Malanjum, as a “medical report for the judiciary”. It gathered self-assessments in seven areas of the court functioning, namely leadership and management, planning and policies, resources, proceedings and processes, client needs and satisfaction, affordable and accessible court services, and public trust and confidence.
It is notable that while UNDP Malaysia has partnered with the Malaysian government for 62 years in development initiatives, the IFCE Report marks the first time that UNDP has provided technical support to the judiciary.
The IFCE Report may be accessed here.
Judicial Colloquium on Access to Justice and Borneo Colloquium on Environmental Justice
The High Court of Sabah and Sarawak partnered with UNDP Malaysia to organise two important colloquiums in January and February this year.
Firstly, the National Colloquium on Access to Justice took place on 16 January 2020. A one-day event, the colloquium firmly recognised that access to justice is a fundamental right and addressed challenges and ways in bringing justice to rural and remote communities, how to improve legal aid, the use of technology to improve affordability, and easier access to justice.
In the words of Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, the Chief Justice of Malaysia, during the colloquium, “To this end, the judiciary’s mobile court programme will also be expanded to encompass the urban poor. If one cannot access the courts, the courts will then make an active effort to reach out to them.” (emphasis added)
As an affirmation of the participants’ commitment to improving and strengthening access to justice in Malaysia, the ‘Kuching Statement on Access to Justice’ was produced at the closing of the colloquium. It is reproduced here below:
- We are committed to expanding and strengthening the administrative, operational and legal framework for the mobile courts to ensure remote and disadvantaged communities have access to justice
- We are committed to further enhancing and making efficient the legal aid system; and developing a more enabling environment for self-represented litigants
- We are committed to leveraging the use of technology to enhance and maximize access to justice for all.
Secondly, the Borneo Colloquium on Environmental Justice was held on 15 February 2020, bringing together seven panellists—including a Judge from the Environment Court of New Zealand—to share their experience and expertise in their respective fields which ranged from geology, wildlife protection, environmental enforcement, and environmental law.
The Malaysian Judiciary has been active in creating favourable conditions for enabling environmental justice since 2012 through, among other things, the establishment of environmental courts and training programmes that are aimed at enhancing the knowledge and skills of judges and judicial officers in environmental cases.
The Colloquium was also particularly timely in light of another significant step recently taken by the Malaysian Judiciary – amending the Rules of Court 2012 to provide specific procedures for environmental cases.
Before this, procedures for environmental cases were scattered in various statutes. These will now be governed by a single set of procedures as provided in the amended Rules of Court 2012. Importantly, the amendments also serve to facilitate and encourage environmental public interest suits by relaxing certain procedural requirements, including those related to the locus standi (“standing”) to commence a case.
The colloquium thus provided participating judges and judicial officers the opportunity to learn about the techniques and principles used in hearing environmental cases as well as new and developing areas of law concerning the environment from experts from around the world.
Rule of Law: A Continuous Effort
Now more than ever, with additional lessons drawn from COVID-19, it is clear that technology plays a central role in ensuring that those left behind can affordably gain access to court services. Integration of technology into court proceedings such as the use of Artificial Intelligence as recently launched in the Magistrate Court in Sabah—a first in Asia—exhibits Malaysia’s continuous effort to improve the judicial system.
The UNDP-Judiciary joint colloquium on Environmental Justice has showcased that SDG 16 for Peace, Justice and Strong Institution is indeed a means to achieve the remaining SDGs. Strong environmental justice not only has a direct positive impact on the environment itself but also to the people depending on the natural resources for their livelihood and wellbeing such as the Orang Asli and Orang Asal of Malaysia. We can indeed create a positive and impactful domino effect by inhibiting environmental degredation through strict law enforcement.
The efforts presented above exhibit the Malaysian Judiciary’s commitment to upholding the Rule of Law in the country. UNDP is committed to continue supporting the Malaysian Judiciary in their effort to improve access to justice in Malaysia. Court services that are accessible to all will ensure that no one are left behind as the country continue to develop. Access to justice is, after all a fundamental right for everyone living in a democratic society.